Tank Warfare: Looking Back At Every Team Who Tried To Build Through The Draft

For three consecutive years, the Philadelphia 76ers have assembled one of the NBA’s worst teams, in an effort to acquire top draft picks. Many in the mainstream media will have you believe this strategy is an unbelievable and unprecedented atrocity, worthy of shame and punishment.

In reality, sinking to the bottom of the league for multiple years has become commonplace among the dregs of the NBA. Some have done it on purpose, like the Sixers, while others have simply failed at failing. Picking at the top of the draft isn’t foolproof. For Sam Hinkie and similar thinkers, it is a bit like stepping up to the plate in a baseball game. Even good hitters can go 0-4, but the chances of that happening are lower than a swing and a miss as a pinch hitter.

Since the turn of the century, the Sixers are the 10th team to choose three or more players in top six picks of the NBA Draft three years in a row. Some have extended that streak to a fourth year or acquired as many as five top picks during their time at bottom.

For some, the strategy has proved prudent, leading to a superstar or a path to the top of the league. For others, a series of top draft picks has resulted in a parade of busts and no real answers.

Let’s look back at each team than has rolled the tanks out of the garage (whether on purpose or by accident) and mined the top of the draft, looking for diamonds.

We’ll start by reminding ourselves of where the Sixers’ rebuild leaves them.

sixers tankers

Now let’s look at other teams who have acquired THREE top six picks in a THREE year span (don’t worry, we’ll come back to Philly):

Orlando Magic

(in progress…)

magic tank

There’s an NBA team who has taken a player in the top five of the draft three straight years, but hasn’t found their superstar yet. The Sixers? Nope. Nerlens Noel was the 6th pick.

The team I’m talking about is Orlando. The Sixers have been the bigger headline, with less stable veterans on the roster and an extra year of failure (this season), Philadelphia has made the tanking in Orlando seem run-of-the-mill. Orlando has made their way to the top of the lottery, likely ending their time in the top 5. And after three years, what do they have to show for it?

Aaron Gordon wowed at the dunk contest, Victor Oladipo appears to be a solid, if not special player, and the jury is very much out on Hezonja. The Magic flipped 23 year old Tobias Harris for veterans and upcoming cap space this summer. So rather than continue to roll the dice in the draft, they’ll take their Yahtzee cups to the free agency table. After missing out on Paul Millsap last year, Orlando may have their eyes on his teammate, Al Horford. Horford has Florida ties, but they may not be enough to woo him away from Atlanta.

At least in the draft, a miss can lead to a rotation player or trade piece. If the Magic whiff in free agency, a core of Gordon, Oladipo, Hezonja, Nik Vucavic may be fun, but certainly not a threat to compete for titles. No state income tax and warm weather are great  pieces of a pitch, but a competitive team or more exciting city than Orlando are better paths to a free agent catch.

Right now, the Magic are better than the Sixers, but I’m not so sure how long that will last.

GRADE: Incomplete.

Grit and Grind and…

Memphis, 2007-2009

grizz tank

That…is an interesting trifecta. Conley is a former All-Star. Mayo is a career 14 point per game scorer, out of the NBA before his 30th birthday (who was swapped for Kevin Love on draft night). Thabeet is on the short list of worst picks of all-time. The Grizzlies selected Thabeet second overall, before five future All-Stars were taken in the rest of the first round, including Steph Curry and James Harden. Ouch.

Ultimately though, going back to the baseball analogy, batting .300 worked well enough. A young core of Conley and Mayo was supplemented by Zach Randolph, a reclamation project, and Marc Gasol, the big prize in the Lakers’ acquisition of older brother Pau. When the Grizzlies traded Pau to LA and in the years following, it was seen as one of the most lopsided trades ever and a tanking inspired move. Now, we know they got the centerpiece of their soon to be contending teams in the deal.

If Memphis had nailed the Mayo pick (Love or Russell Westbrook?) or not whiffed on Thabeet, it’s not crazy to think they’d have made an NBA Finals or won a title.

GRADE: B-

Charlotte Bobcats

The Expansion Years

bobcat tanl

When the Bobs entered the league, it logically took some time for them to scrape their way from the bottom. But man, those first three draft picks are a doozy. This even ignores the fact that in 2005, the Bobcats also used the 13th pick on Sean May.

In their defense, those three drafts were a bit barren. It’s not as easy to play the “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda” game like we did with Memphis. Even in hindsight, the best Charlotte may have been able to do looks like a core of Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bynum, Danny Granger, and Rudy Gay. Not exactly a title contender there.

GRADE: D+

And now, teams who acquired FOUR top six picks in THREE years. 

Cleveland Cav-Nots

LeBron’s Lost Years

cav tank

So LeBron leaves for Miami and the Cavs are left with an empty cupboard. They respond by winning the Draft Lottery 3 times in a 5 year span, choosing an All-Star (Kyrie Irving) with one of those picks and swapping the other two for a former franchise cornerstone (Kevin Love). The non-top pick seasons, they had the 4th pick, and found limited success there. Tristan Thompson is a fine player, not worth the max contract Cleveland re-signed him to. Dion Waiters is…Dion Waiters.

The LeBron thing makes this case unlike any other, but let’s assume for a second that there is no perfect homecoming story in play. If the Cavs had acquired all of those top picks and cap space, it’s plausible they could have wooed another free agent. Maybe someone like Chandler Parsons, Gordon Hayward, or Greg Monroe, all available in the summer of 2014.

Add that piece to Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, and either Andrew Wiggins or Kevin Love, and you’ve got an interesting team. Maybe not the top seed in the East, but at least in this scenario the Cavs aren’t muddled by subtweets, coaching conundrums, and middle school drama like they have been since King James made his return. They’d have a nice core, with a chance to make some noise.

Revisionist history may have you remembering the Cavs as more lucky than tanking, but in the 4 years between LeBron stints, Cleveland was a combined 97-215, only winning 25+ games once in that span.

GRADE: B+

#SaveOurSonics

The Thunder Babies

thunder tanker

Well, that is how it is done. Add in a nailed late first round pick (Serge Ibaka at #24 in 2008) and you’ve got the makings of a real championship contender.

Trade one of those young stars for a pile of nothing and well, you have whatever the Thunder are now.

GRADE: A

The Ailed Blazers

Portland, 2005-2007

blazer tanker

In a span of four years, Portland drafted one fine NBA player, a star, and two promising prospects who suffered chronic and career ending injuries. In a perfect world, an Aldridge-Oden frontcourt works perfectly, with both acting as pick-and-roll partners for the electric Roy. Webster slides in as a role player and all is well in Portland.

The NBA ain’t a perfect world.

GRADE: C-

Moving on, to teams who have grabbed FOUR top six picks in a FOUR year period.

Washington Wizards

House of Guards

wiz tank

Sam Hinkie’s favorite word is not “Process” or “assets” (he barely ever used either), but may likely be “optionality” (my spell check disagrees that this is a word at all). During his tenure and in his resignation letter, he talked about how collecting draft picks, young players, and cap space gave the Sixers options. If you have one draft pick every year and one shot at a free agent, you have less arrows in your quiver to try to hit the bullseye. Load up the quiver with second rounders, pick swaps, and fliers, then you may hit the target more than once.

The Wiz are a perfect example of why this matters. They chose in the top 6 of the draft for four straight years. If they had made a “win now” move after drafting Wall and Vesely, thinking they had two franchise saviors on their hands, they’d never have a chance to add a player like Beal. Vesely was a bust and Porter has been up-and-down, but having four top picks allows Washington to strike out or hit a single. They also have a home run and an a triple on the scoresheet.

This summer presents them with the chance to add a competent coach and either pull off the Kevin Durant dream or forget about it and actually build around Wall and Beal.

GRADE: B+

Al’s Land of Hawks

Atlanta, 2004-2007 (sorry)

hawk tank

Shelden Williams could have been JJ Redick, but Williams never scored more than 5.5 points per game and his most meaningful contribution to the basketball world is being Candace Parker’s husband.

Marvin Williams could have been Chris Paul (or Deron Williams). He wasn’t, playing seven uninspiring seasons for Atlanta. Now he’s figuring things out in Charlotte.

Josh Childress could have been Luol Deng or Andre Iguodala. Instead, after four years with the Hawks, he took more money to play in Greece. He came back to the NBA for a short stint before heading to Australia, where he did this:

Needless to say, things could have gone better for the Hawks. Still, they nabbed one star at the top of the draft and have spent a decade trying to build around Horford. They are finally starting to have some success, but would kill for another crack at the top of the draft.

GRADE: Like a 3.7 GPA, but it took eight years to get your degree

Finally, since 2000, only one team has acquired FIVE top six picks in a FOUR year period. 

The Long Minnesota Winter

2008-2011…and more

timbertanks

So, even though the Wolves have been the standard bearers for living at the top of the draft in the 21st century, the list above doesn’t even tell the whole story. The chose Corey Brewer just outside of our criteria, with the 7th pick, in 2007 and have acquired three more top picks since this streak ended. The swapped Love for Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett and drafted Karl-Anthony Towns.

If there’s a team with a more promising future than Minnesota, I can’t find them. It took tons of luck. They needed health and the LeBron situation to break their way and they even whiffed horribly on not taking Steph Curry. Yet now they are building something. It took more than eight years.

Sixers ownership got jumpy after two and a half….

GRADE: Dad said he’d buy you a car if you got a C+ and you did, just barely.

Now let’s turn back to the Sixers:

sixers tankers

The Sixers will at least join the 4-in-4 crowd this June. If the pick the Lakers owe comes to Philly as well, they’ll join Minnesota as the only members of the 4-in-5 club. If the Sixers end up in the top 6 of the 2017 draft, they’d be the first team since 2000 to do so five straight years (and could have a 6 top six picks in the fold, plus Dario Saric from the late lottery).

Right now, there’s certainly a chance that all seven of those players aren’t NBA stars. How big is that chance? You’d be betting against the development of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, the health of Joel Embiid, the prospect of Dario Saric, and 2-3 top five draft picks in the next two years.

Teams have failed with less, but no one in this century has swam as far out as the Sixers.

**

Header Image via AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to SALTMoney.org, Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to palestraback@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Tank Warfare: Looking Back At Every Team Who Tried To Build Through The Draft

  1. Great post. I particularly liked your analysis of the Menphis Grizzlies rebuild since I have been a die hard fan of them since I was 5 and was a season ticket holder for 3 years. I think you underestimated Tony Allen’s effect on the team, but no biggie. When Rudy Gay got hurt, Tony Allen completely changed the culture of the team

    Like

    1. Allen has absolutely been huge for Memphis’ attitude and culture. As far as where he fits in the rebuild, he’s a key figure. For teams building from the bottom, that kind of player is key. It’s what the Sixers and Magic will start to locate now.

      Like

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